Also now available to read at AO3.
Summary: ... because apparently it all happened quite late on Sunday evening, and they sat up half the night, kissing one another madly in a punt. From the Balliol hall to the morning after; at the end of Gaudy Night, Harriet and Peter take a punt on the river. Missing scene fic, the rest of that evening that DLS (curse her!) didn’t give us.
The usual disclaimer: Not pretending to be DLS, not going to make any money out of this. There are some direct quotations from the novels, which I am not trying to hide. The whole point of including them is that they are recognisable.
The more ye desire her, the sooner ye miss;
The more ye require her, the stranger she is.
The more ye pursue her, the faster she flyeth;
The more ye eschew her, the sooner she plyeth.
But if ye refrain her, and use not to crave her,
So shall ye obtain her if ever ye have her.
Sixteenth century, Anonymous
Half-lying under a beech tree on sun-dappled summer grass ... summer grass and summer air, summer warmth on a summer breeze ... the warm wet air of the cactus house ... summer grass and strong arms encircling one in a scene that one had to admit rather resembled the kind of romantic fiction that one pretended not to read, but there it was ... summer warmth and sun-dappled light in one’s eyes ... closed eyes ... and strong arms encircling one ... closed eyes and kisses and Peter ... Peter ... Peter’s arms and Peter’s hands ... and kisses ... and ...
There was a crash and a flash of light, and as Harriet awoke she thought for a moment that it must be the Poltergeist again. Then sense returned to tell her that the Poltergeist was gone, and the blazing light the soft glow of the morning sun through cheap curtains. The crash was followed by an appalling clatter that sounded like someone flinging a mop and bucket about and the shriek of female voices in complaint.
Harriet opened her eyes again. A moment’s inward cursing at scout and student changed to an outward groan at the realisation that most of the unpleasant resonance was within her skull, and that it was all very well to rise in righteous indignation, but that attempting to rise any further than her left elbow was likely to end in disaster. Her head ached damnably. An exploratory hand to the stitches in her scalp revealed a dusting of dried blood, but did not appear to explain the extent of the headache, nor the gentle swaying of the bed. A careful tilt of the head showed a packet of powder and glass of stale water on the bedside table – clearly she had not altogether lost her senses the previous night. She managed to tip most of the packet into the glass and drank gratefully. The sounds from the corridor faded, though the bed still rocked most disconcertingly and she was not entirely sure of her stomach. Perhaps if she lay very, very still it would be better.
Harriet closed her eyes and fell back into Peter’s arms.
Peter watched her as she crossed the quad. The evening air was heavy with heat, and the heady scent of wisteria hung about the Balliol walls. She was wearing the frock he had admired at the Shrewsbury high table, a long bias thing that made the most of her figure, silk the lilac blue of a summer evening. It was not a colour he had expected to suit her, but it did – Oh, thou are fairer than the evening air, clad... Imagination adorned her hands and hair with zircons, her neck with pearls. She was looking about her as she walked and quite suddenly her eyes met his and her whole face shone.
‘Hello, Peter. It’s a gorgeous evening.’
‘Isn’t it? It’s getting pretty lively in there, shall we go in?’
A thrum of voices, stillness, and the sudden strike of the violin.
The crowded hall was stifling, his evening dress and black gown ought to have been unbearable. He noticed none of it. He scarcely heard the music. Experience recognised easily enough that the players were good, and was content to let harmony, order and proportion have their way. Love had other things to feed on; his whole awareness was taken up with the light press of Harriet’s body against his on the familiar and uncomfortable Balliol benches. She was squashed slightly against him so that he felt her weight, the long line of her leg warm against his. She shifted in her cramped seat, her shoulder brushing his; his very bones itched. He wondered how he could possibly have thought of this evening as only the harmonious end to a particular tumultuous voyage, of parting in tranquillity and of writing to her – experience mocked virtue – from Italy. Her hands lay curled in her lap, the fingers curved upwards, thumb just touching the crescent sleeve of his gown where it lay over her knee. One could – there had been that moment in the Botanic Gardens, when her arm had slipped through his - but there would be a pause before the singer; better not after all.
A sudden silence and a rumble. The movement had ended and the audience, released from its prison of politeness, shifted and squirmed and made itself more comfortable. The hum of conversation rose to the rafters. Harriet was speaking.
‘ – what did you mean when you said that anybody could have the harmony if they would leave us the counterpoint?’
She spoke lightly, but there was something in her voice, the slight tightness of nerve, that screamed warning. He felt quite suddenly as if he stood barefoot on broken glass, not yet bloodied, but needing only the slightest mis-step. He answered with false ease, as if it were only flirtation as with any other woman it would have been. There couldn’t be a row. Not now.
‘Why, that I like my music polyphonic.’ A twitch of the hand took in the musicians on the dais. ‘If you thought I meant anything else, you know what I meant.’
Her face was utterly unreadable.
‘I’m not much of a musician, Peter.’
So that was it. The last little bit of the puzzle, dragged from the dusty dark of the cupboard and pushed out onto the table to be everything and nothing, the corner of the roof and a bit of blue sky. The stark line of shadow under the eaves. All that unhappiness and uncertainty for something so horribly, bitterly ordinary as thinking herself incapable, and he felt a sudden rush of fury against the man who had had made her believe that of herself, that she... She was waiting, and it was tremendously important to say the right thing, but what could one say? Nothing was adequate, not It doesn’t matter, because it mattered terribly. I’ll teach you was the sort of thing that sounded romantic only in novels, repulsive outside them. It isn’t true, or I don’t believe it, were merely insulting, though he couldn’t believe it all the same; not watching her these last few days, since that moment on the river when he had looked up to see her skin turn scarlet through her linen frock in a rush of blood. But the soloist was coming and there was only time for something half-nonsense, all truth, and silence.
The soloist, who was of the booming type, was followed by the fugue again, and a bustle as the chairs were moved around for the instrumentalists, and now Harriet was talking about the performance, something commonplace and inconsequential, but he took her hand and held it for a moment under the table and said,
She had turned towards the dais again, but her hand had tightened on his before he had released it, and perhaps things might just possibly be all right after all. The sun’s long rays through the tall windows splashed gold across the hall, poured through air thick with heat and splendour; outside the college walls Jordan River lapped at the yellow stones.
There was a gentle knock on the door, and the Dean’s voice calling,
‘Miss Vane! Are you awake?’
Harriet, feeling rather more herself, replied that she was and hoisted herself onto her elbows as the Dean entered bearing a small tray.
‘I thought you might like some tea.’
‘Thank you. Tea would be very welcome.’
Miss Martin set the tray on the desk and carried cup and saucer (with biscuit) to Harriet. ‘Is everything all right? Of course, we saw you weren’t at breakfast, but we all miss that now and again. Only when you didn’t appear for lunch and your curtains were still closed, we were worried about your head. You took quite a knock. And you do look off-colour.’
Harriet laughed ruefully. ‘Oh, my head’s all right. At least, the knocked bit is. But I’m tired to death, and I’m afraid I’ve the most dreadful hangover.’
‘You poor thing! No wonder you look rotten. Do you want anything?’
‘No. It’s over the worst, I think. I might have a bath.’
‘That sounds like a very good idea. I brought your post up.’
‘Oh!’ Only ordinary envelopes, but a red seal glinted and surely that could be from no-one else. ‘Thank you.’
‘I’ll leave you to it.’ She moved briskly to the door.
‘Wait!’ Miss Martin turned on her heel, a brisk, bobbing movement. Harriet took a deep breath. ‘I must tell someone now or I’ll never dare: I’m engaged to Peter Wimsey.’
Miss Martin laughed. ‘We did wonder if something was up. The note came round at seven and his nephew at nine.’ She kissed her swiftly. ‘Well done, my dear.’
‘Harriet; you know that I love you: will you marry me?’
The crossroads stood empty: Oxford on a Sunday evening, dons’ cars snug in their garages along the Woodstock Road, and even the student bicyclists quietly at home. Still she waited at the lights: red, red-and-amber, green. She halted suddenly beneath the shadow of the bridge. He turned back towards her. In her high heels she would have been as tall as he, but for the camber of the uneven cobbles so that she stood looking up at him, eyes fixed upon his face as she laid her hands upon his chest.
He could never after remember hearing her answer. But he knew how it would have sounded had she refused. Her hands slid from his gown to his coat.
‘Yes., Peter.’ She smiled, fond, affectionate, amused, and the world came rushing back and he kissed her. His mortar board dropped unheeded on the cobblestones, and his hand moved her waist.
Footsteps were receding into the distance. He raised his head reluctantly.
‘That was a Proctor, wasn’t it?’
Harriet laughed. ‘I wasn’t concentrating on pedestrian traffic, but – yes, I’m afraid it was. I think - no, not poor Mr Jenkins again. I shall have no reputation left. Never mind, it was worth it.’
‘Was it? Darling Harriet, tell me I’m not dreaming.’
Her breath was warm against his cheek, her hand hooked in his. ‘Definitely not dreaming.’
Then he was holding her against him, kissing her open mouth, deafened by bells ringing jubilant.
‘What in the world?’ said Peter.
It was a gang of students, rolling and leaping home, amiably drunk. One whistled, to be instantly quelled by a fellow. They passed in a display of exaggerated discretion, faces to the wall, disappearing round the corner in whoop of laughter.
‘I like a nice quiet spot, I do,’ said Harriet. ‘I think perhaps we ought to find somewhere else. It’ll be your nephew along next.’
‘Good God! And whilst getting caught by the Proctor can only add to one’s stock, Jerry would be a frightful nuisance. Only I’ve not the least idea of where to go and as the night is young and you are beautiful, I’m damned if I’m going to kiss you goodnight at the postern gate and trot meekly away.’
‘Really, Peter. You can’t expect me to believe you’ve never considered it, because I won’t believe you.’
‘Well, I shan’t pretend I’ve never given the matter any thought. But the circumstances have usually been a little more congenial than a Sunday night in Oxford.’
‘I’m sorry to have put you to so much trouble,’ said Harriet sarcastically.
‘No trouble, I assure you, at least with the application of a little thought. Let’s see. We can’t stand here all night; if nothing else I think my shoes will pinch. You can’t possibly come back to the Mitre, and we can hardly knock on your Dean’s door and ask if she’d be so kind as to lend us her sitting room again. Do you want a polite supper at the Randolph?’
‘Nor I. We might go to a pub, I suppose, and put off the fateful decision for half-an-hour. I’ve got to be at Croydon in the morning, so I don’t honestly want to drive to London and back, and anyway your flat’s shut up and so is mine. Besides, I can think of much better ways to spend the time. I don’t suppose there are any nightclubs in Oxford these days? At least it would last longer than the pub.’
‘There’s one; I’m afraid it’s rather horrid.’
‘Perhaps I’d better change my mind.’
‘Don’t you dare!’
Harriet, who in her present state would certainly have considered the Mitre with gladness had Peter not so forcefully ruled it out, racked her brain. ‘I suppose,’ she said, ‘there’s the back row of the Talkies.’
‘Oh Harriet! I knew I loved you for a reason. Good and clever! Please let us go to the Talkies. This seems to be a night for new experiences, and I’ve never kissed a girlfriend in a cinema.’
‘If you expect me to believe that - ’
‘If you insist. In any case, the same objection applies; I think they’re closed.’
‘Surely not for an hour.’
‘Peter, I promise faithfully that when we are married, I’ll spoon with you at the Picture Palace to a programme of exhibition diving and a newsreel on industrialization in the Ukraine. But I’d rather like a little practice before venturing on a public performance. Surely we can find a quiet corner somewhere or other?’
‘Very well – but I shall hold you to it. I do seem a bit lacking in ideas tonight, good ones anyway; I must be distracted by something. You’d better come here and inspire me.’
‘If you like.’
The process of inspiration lasted for several minutes, but appeared to have some effect, as upon his releasing her rather breathlessly, Harriet observed Peter pinch his lips and begin tentatively,
‘Look here, Harriet, I hope it doesn’t make me sound too much like a commercial traveller,’
‘But how about the Daimler? I mean, we could go for a drive out somewhere if you liked. We could find a nice secluded field.’
‘Relatively free of cowpats and thistles?’
‘Something like that. There’s a couple of rugs in the back, and it isn’t going to get cold for hours. I wouldn’t push my luck.’
‘In the middle of an Oxfordshire field? I should hope not.’ She kissed him swiftly. ‘Dearest Peter. The Daimler will be lovely. Come on, let’s go now. Where is Mrs Merdle parked?’
‘The Mitre has a garage in one of those silly little streets south of the High. But we might send our love to the river on the way. I feel I owe it something.’
The Cherwell, brown and golden in the evening sun, rippled quietly beneath Magdalen bridge. The last supper-parties had retreated, and the ranks of punts lay placidly beneath the wall of the Botanic Garden. Peter, demonstrating in the most restrained manner that he had completely lost his head, held his arm firmly around her shoulders. There was face-powder on his lapel; she wondered what Bunter would think of it. But Bunter must be used to anything. It could not be denied, one was slightly nervous about Bunter. He mattered rather a lot, and one didn’t know him very well, though he had seemed friendly enough in Wilvercombe. It said something of Peter, perhaps, that Bunter had put up with him for so long. To servants kind, to friendship clear, and how silly to be worrying about that now in Peter’s arms.
The arm removed itself as its owner said,
‘Harriet, could you possibly wait here for a minute?’
‘Of course, but – all right, I shan’t ask. I shall be a contented Ariadne and watch the ducks.’
Several minutes later the novelty of abandonment had begun to wear off and the threads of impatience make themselves felt as Harriet saw Peter emerge from the Magdalen Porter’s Lodge. His grin reminded her of a small boy with something in a jar that he was bursting to show off. She crossed the road hurriedly.
‘Come on, I’ve got a surprise for you.’
‘I thought you might have.’
‘You always did see through a glass brightly, but I think you’ll like it. It’s this way.’
He led her into the Lodge, where the Porter raised his hat with a ‘Good evening, miss. They’re ready for you now, sir.’ Harriet began to wonder just what Peter might have accomplished in the course of five minutes. Only the thought that he would surely think it unpardonably rude to telephone Canterbury at this hour on a Sunday kept her from a slight qualm as they passed the chapel. They moved into Addison’s Walk. The fritillaries were almost over: soon the deer would be nosing the meadow. They reached the river.
‘Madam, your gilded barge awaits.’
‘Oh, Peter! How marvellous.’
The punt lay against the bank, cushions and rugs spread upon the planking and – utterly implausible, utterly charming - glasses and a bottle of champagne.
‘However did you do it?’
‘Stood the porter a pint to ’phone Padgett and ask if Lord Peter Wimsey could be trusted with a punt. Don’t worry: Padgett is as silent as the grave.’
‘Is that the honour of the regiment?’
‘Of course,’ Peter continued, ‘if you’d prefer the Daimler, an elderly and probably oil-stained Burberry, and to take your chances with the cow-pats...’
‘Not on your life! I shall learn to live with luxury.’
‘I certainly hope so.’
He handed her in, and she had a sudden remembrance of that other day on the river, the sun beating down and that moment of irrevocable feeling. She wondered what it had cost him then to say nothing. He was paid back now, well paid that is well satisfied - if only one could. But it was no good to think of it like that. One had tried weighing and measuring, and it didn’t work. At least Peter had had the sense to see that all those years ago, although, she realised quite suddenly, she would surely not have gone through with it. After all, however mistakenly, she had thought she had loved Philip. Could she really have walked, freed from the sacrificial altar of the Old Bailey, to new chains without even the excuse of affection? And strip myself to bed as to a death... But what foolishness to dwell on that time now, when they were here.
Peter took up the pole. ‘You don’t mind if I do?’
‘Where are we going?’
‘Not too far. A secluded spot under some willows, I think. I am inclined to suspect the backwaters of being full of insects, which would be distracting. I do not wish to be distracted.’
Even on the river the May night was warm. The ducks with their ducklings chuckled under the banks. A startled goose, caught up-tailed between the punt and an alder branch cackled offendedly as they passed. Harriet folded her gown in the bows and leant back the better to watch Peter. His eyes were focussed on the river as he propelled them with as much speed as could be achieved without splashing towards the quieter reaches below the Parks and away from footpaths. He would have done better, she thought, to have taken off his coat. It was curious that he hadn’t, unless – she recalled his cautiously-worded reassurance concerning the Daimler and the secluded field. Did he think that she was nervous, or was it his own reputation that concerned him? Damn it all! He was the last man - why did things have to get in the way of them now? Did he not think she knew him, after all these years, all those times he had never - I would rather trust you than anybody. She didn’t want him to be cautious, even if it were probably better not the Mitre nor somebody’s flat: this way at least one knew that things were understood, because practicalities notwithstanding one was still hardly going to – She caught his eye and his face lit with such a smile that her heart seemed to miss a beat.
He pushed the pole against the stern and steered the punt in to the bank.
If the admirable plumbing system belonging to Shrewsbury College (Harriet suspected the women who had instructed the architects of having suffered through boarding school) could not wholly restore one, a hot bath nonetheless went a long way. The headache had receded to a lurking warning, and Harriet felt that she might, in an hour or so, consider some dry toast. She only hoped that Peter was not similarly affected, but as he would certainly have noticed had it been bad champagne, the blame undoubtedly lay on an empty stomach and lingering concussion. She towelled her hair with as much vigour as she could afford and reaching for a comb caught a glimpse of herself in the glass.
A tall, slim figure; not bad for thirty-two. No need at least to spend the summer doing callisthenics, although one might have wished for a slightly less fashionable bosom. Fashion was all very well, but fashion and the male mind were not always in harmony. Yet Anybody can have the harmony if they will leave us the counterpoint, and it wasn’t as if Peter hadn’t had the opportunity for inspection in a bathing suit and ample time to consider what he was getting. He certainly hadn’t objected last night. Hair, wet and dark, with a short patch to be hidden by pins. Eyes great black hollows, but that would be better with a bit of sleep and oh! not to worry about things for a while. Skin rather white against her camiknickers, except – oh dear, a great livid bruise just below her collarbone. Summer set lip to earth’s bosom bare, And left the flushed print in a poppy there: one would need a frock with a collar. Had the Dean noticed? Of course she had, but one didn’t care, one didn’t care about anything but the memory of kissing Peter, and why had one never thought not of marrying Peter, or living with Peter, or being grateful to Peter, but simply of kissing Peter. Of Peter’s lips against hers, Peter’s breath on her cheek, Peter’s hands moving from waist to hip to breast and most of all Peter looking so happy and not paid back or triumphant or deserving, but only so very, very dear and silly and hers.
His letter lay on the bedside table.
My dear Harriet,
I told you once that I wanted to write you words that would burn the paper they were written on, but I find that I can only say ‘I love you’...
Memory again, so close she could almost feel the warmth against her skin; Peter, lying in her arms, his face pressed into the crook of her neck, whispering, ‘I love you, I love you, I love you,’ as if he could never tire of saying it, and she, at last, believing him.
Peter pushed the pole forcefully into the Cherwell mud.
‘Well, Harriet, we’ve crossed the Rubicon. Any regrets?’
‘No. I told you that once I do a thing I do it properly. I’ve had years to change my mind; I’m not going to back out now.’
‘Thank God for that,’ he said, seriously.
As he clambered over the seats it struck Harriet that there was something indefinably different about his face, a tension that wasn’t there. She had seen him thus only once before, that other time on the river when he had been too tired to maintain his defences. She was reminded suddenly of a Clark Gable film she had seen one rainy Saturday with the Dean, and the walls of Jericho tumbling. She laughed and held up a hand to help him down.
He folded himself onto the cushions beside her and slipped an arm about her waist. His air of half-bewildered happiness made her feel quite ridiculously tender towards him.
‘I feel,’ he said, ‘as if I ought to be saying something very profound. But I can’t. I’ve been talking for twenty years to conceal my thoughts, and suddenly I don’t have anything to say.’
‘You don’t have to say anything. But I know what you mean. There are all sorts of things I’ve never said to you, but I don’t know that it matters any more.’
There was one thing she hadn’t said. He must want her to say it, but she couldn’t. Not yet, not even to him. His mouth quirked in the familiar smile.
‘Then, fair quiet –’
Harriet turned her head and held him away from her.
‘Peter, will you please take off that ridiculous collar, before I catch my eye on it.’
He hurried to comply. Then there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.
Her silk frock has the thick, soapy feeling of rose-petals under his hands. The punt bobs beneath them and they laugh, and she brushes his hair from his eyes. He kisses her again and feels her body shift up against his. He breaks to breathe and she takes his head in her hands and kisses his temples.
He does not, he realises, have to go so very slowly after all. His hand brushes her waist, rests on the knob of bone at her hip. Her legs are impossibly smooth in silk stockings; he feels the figure-of-eight outline of a suspender clip under her skirts. Her dress is crumpled already, the rich silk lying in rills, the hem pushed up to her knees. She must have done that when she sat down, and he laughs at himself because he hadn’t even noticed, had been looking at her face unable to quite still the fear that it wasn’t real, she still wasn’t real.
A hand takes his and the touch jolts him.
‘I’m sorry. I must have been miles away.’ She smiles. ‘Well, maybe not miles.’ In the dark, he thinks that she is blushing. He touches her cheek and lets his fingers trail down her jaw, her neck, her throat, traces the prominent collar bone with this thumb. He can feel the rise and fall of her breathing, quiet and a little quick. She catches his infinitesimal hesitation and nods quickly.
She reaches up and kisses him hard and he loses track of everything else.
His outstretched hand seized the red pawn triumphantly and bore it from its refuge, but triumph was short-lived.
Harriet was crying. She stood huddled over the chest of drawers, shuddering in great ugly sobs, her hands pressed to her face, shoulders hunched, her voice ragged with misery, and he couldn’t leave her there alone, couldn’t leave any woman looking like that. It would have been the most monstrous selfishness. He was talking nonsense again, but this time she didn’t laugh at him, only cried and cried as if she would never leave off weeping, and she’d asked him to come, hadn’t she, much good that he had done her, and surely this was not all for those thirty-two little bits of ivory, but some old woes new wailed with them, and what more could do for her this moment but touch her lightly on her shoulder and let her turn towards him and into his arms.
He had not held her since they had danced at Wilvercombe, exquisitely formal and correct. Now she stood slumped against him, her head turned into her shoulder so that he felt the damp heat of her breath through his clothes. His left hand at her waist still held the chess piece, his right arm cradled her against him, stroking her hair.
‘I told you love was the devil and all.’
She had an end of the evening smell commingled of food, smoke, sweat and faded scent. His mouth was full of her hair; so close, she had only to turn her head. Her skin was warm against his own. His hand brushed over her neck, saved once – and now? All his hopes ventured in this one frail vessel, and he had no right to intervene unless she gave it. He could make her give it, if he wanted, he knew it. It would be so terrifyingly easy to kiss her now, so that when he said, For my sake, you can’t stay here, she would have submitted. And afterwards, would she ever have forgiven him?
‘I might have had the decency to take care of them.’
She was still crying, but more softly, her voice hiccupping a little against his collar. Her face rubbed softly against the broadcloth, her hair tickled his cheek. He could hear his own breathing and hers. He put her gently away from him, proffered a handkerchief, and got down to business.
Afterwards, walking in the direction of the Mitre, it would not be the weight of her head on his shoulder, or the warmth of her body against his that he recalled, but the scout in the doorway with her small, strong hands.
Strangling is a very quiet death.
‘Harriet? What’s wrong?’
Harriet raised a tentative hand to her head and winced. ‘I think you caught a stitch.’
‘Oh hell, darling, I’m sorry. So much for not hurting a hair of your head. Let me look at it.’
‘It’s all right, only it stung rather for a moment. Don’t worry about it, Peter.’
He kissed her hair. ‘There. Let’s have some more champagne.’
Her face, stripped of the animation that made it lovely to him, lay stark white and blue against the tangle of dark hair on the pillow. The harsh light of the infirmary – or was it loss of blood - gave it an oddly marmoreal quality, moulding the skin over the skull to show the shape of the bones. Bunter was monitoring the search for Annie Wilson, but Jerry was there on the other side of the room, looking tired and shocked and strangely adult. He had listened seriously as Peter rehearsed his instructions: the evidence being collected, what to be done with it, to whom to report. Miss Climpson’s agents were combing England; he was expected back in Warwickshire by breakfast, thence to be sent who-knew-where. Somebody had to be in Oxford, and his nephew, strange again to think it of him, was the only person it was utterly safe to trust. His own stupid, selfish folly beat at him, that he had not found some decent way to get her out of there, but made her risk her life for his own ends and brought her only to this narrow bed.
There was a sound, as if Harriet had stirred, but it was only footsteps overhead, someone searching the attics. He was still holding the ridiculous dog collar twisted in his hands. His nephew got up quite suddenly and laid a hand on his shoulder.
‘Why don’t you sit down?’ He felt himself put into a chair beside her bed and the leather strip removed from his grasp. Jerry’s voice was thin and high,
‘For God’s sake, Uncle Peter! It isn’t taking advantage if you hold her hand.’
But the dry bones between his fingers were not Harriet. He laid his forehead on the white sheets and sat very still for a long time.
‘Yes.’ Appallingly comfortable, lying on the cushions in Peter’s embrace, one’s head on his shoulder, fingers interlaced. The air so stifling earlier in the Balliol hall now a blessing, still and rich with scent, warm enough for shirt-sleeves and a silk frock.
‘You’re not cold?’
‘Not the least bit.’
Her head in the crook of his neck, her hand at his waist. Ridiculous, to be so happy. To be made so happy by this, and the promise of this.
‘My true love has my heart, and I have – have I really, Harriet?’
‘Peter, that could become very irritating. I’m here. You know I’m yours. I have been for ages, really.’
‘I’m sorry. I do believe you. Only,’
‘I know. It isn’t easy to believe good things. It doesn’t matter; we’ll have to forgive it in one another. Shall I tell you a secret?’
‘I’ve dreamed of this.’
‘Have you!’ His voice rose in delighted surprise.
‘Oh dear! It’s true all the same. I have, ages ago. But this is better.’
‘No cold hill-side?’
The sound of the river, ducks on the water, chimes in the far distance, the stream chuckling against a hanging branch. The shudder of her breath in her throat. He felt drunk on everything but words.
‘Hmm.’ Catching her hands against his mouth, kissing fingers, knuckles, the hot veins at the wrist.
‘Peter,’ she freed herself from his grasp and sat up, looking half away from him. ‘I know it isn’t fair to ask, but you really don’t mind?’
‘Mind what? Oh! No. No, I don’t. I said I didn’t, remember? Right at the start. I hardly knew you, and I oughtn’t to have been talking about it at all, but it’s true all the same. Do you mind about me?’
‘Of course not.’
‘Socially, I’ll grant you, but not in any way that should matter to us.’ He moved to sit beside her. ‘Look here, Harriet, do get this wretched idea out of your head once and for all. It doesn’t matter. It’s never mattered; not to me. You don’t regret that you’re not getting a forty-five year old neophyte for a husband, do you?’
‘Don’t be silly!’
‘I’m not. I’m deadly serious. Harriet, I’m sorry you had a rotten time, but not for anything else. I love you, and I’m not a hypocrite – oh, I dare say I am about lots of other things, but not here, not about this. For God’s sake, forget it.’
She turned towards him and laid her hand on his chest. ‘All right. I will. Thank you, Peter.’
‘That’s settled, then.’ He reached an arm around her shoulder. ‘The moon’s up – it’s getting late. So come, my Celia, let us prove, While we can the sports of love.’
‘I never,’ said Harriet, kissing him, ‘much cared for Jonson.’
‘No? Well, there are other poets.’ And Peter, reflecting afterwards that Harriet had entirely missed the reference, considered that perhaps after all it had been for the best.
A clean shirt, thought Harriet, a dry biscuit and a cup of tea, went a long way to making one feel human again. Not quite human enough to tackle packing her things for a return to London in the next few days, nor to write to Peter’s mother, but sufficient to drowse pleasantly over a novel in the Fellow’s Garden until it should be a reasonable time to venture upon the SCR. The question of what to do about Peter’s ring had been resolved when she realised that she was not in fact wearing it. After some anxious minutes she had run it to earth among the sheets, and found that it was far too large to sit securely on her ring finger, too small for any others, and tucked it away with his letter to be sentimental over in private. One did not imagine that things were likely to remain private once Peter’s relatives got hold of them – although the note from Lord Saint-George had been surprisingly touching – but there was no need to invite comment on what was after all nobody else’s business. She felt oddly lacklustre, in a way that she vaguely remembered feeling after she had won her Oxford scholarship, as if with so much new life in prospect one didn’t quite know what to do with it. The clock struck the quarter hour. The dons would be assembling for dinner, and though the prospect was rather daunting, no doubt once over the initial shock it would not be too bad. They ought at least to be relied upon, after the events of recent days, to keep curiosity tolerably restrained, and even Miss Hillyard would be practice for facing Peter’s family. She put her book in her bag and marched boldly into the quad.
In the event, the High Table had behaved itself impeccably, displaying only the briefest and most formal curiosity, and contenting themselves with expressions of goodwill. The same could not be said for the students, who seemed in particularly raucous mood, although perhaps it was only one’s head that made the roar so unbearable. Harriet was relieved when they departed for coffee in the SCR and to be allowed to sit quietly in a corner as one by one the dons dropped away to leave only the Dean, Miss Lydgate, Miss De Vine and, curiously, Miss Chilperic. The last was speaking now, in a determined voice quite unlike her usual tones.
‘I have informed the Warden that I do not intend to give up my fellowship. I think that it is high time the women’s colleges showed students that we at least do not think married women unfit for intellectual exercise.’
‘How did Dr Baring respond?’ asked Miss Martin. Miss Chilperic blushed.
‘Oh! That she was very glad of it, and pleased that something had come out of this business at least. I do not think she cares much for Jacob Peppercorn, but that is not important. I dare say his fellows don’t much care for me, but they don’t expect him to give up his job because of it.’
‘Here, here!’ said Miss Lydgate. ‘I for one am delighted to hear it, not only for myself, but as the senior English Fellow.’
‘What about you, Miss Vane?’ asked Miss De Vine. ‘I hope that you don’t intend to stop writing your books. Lord Peter won’t expect it, surely?’
‘If I thought for a moment that he would, I shouldn’t be marrying him.’
‘I think I shall propose a toast,’ said the Dean, handing round sherry glasses. ‘To the poltergeist,’
‘To the poltergeist, for showing us as we are. Not in the end too shabby a picture.’
‘Quite right,’ said Harriet. ‘Not shabby at all.’
O noctes cenaeque deum! The chiming hour rang across the meadows, and Peter Wimsey, reclining in a punt with his arm around his girl, allowed himself a moment of self-congratulation. He had got what he wanted, and if the merit lay rather in recognizing this in Harriet rather than the means pursued to an end which seemed to have been achieved somehow despite himself, after five years she was his Harriet by word and deed and he saw no reason not to be satisfied with his part in it. That his girl was almost asleep he hoped could be ascribed to the lateness of the hour, the wine, and her state of health rather than any lack in his own performance. She drowsed slack-limbed against him, smiling when he bent to kiss her. The touch of her fingertips against his shirt at his waist was more luxurious than all the pleasures of the Orient.
She woke with a start as the punt bumped against the mooring.
‘We’re home.’ She stared up at him a little groggily.
‘What time is it?’
‘Getting on for four. The sun’ll be coming up soon.’
‘Heavens! We’ve been out for hours.’
‘Stolen a good few from the night. But I feel a little old to roll home in evening dress to meet the milkman, and though Bunter never panics at the thought of missed aeroplanes, signs of anxiety can be identified by the discerning observer.’ He collected her gown and handed her out of the punt. She stumbled on the path.
‘Harriet! I do believe you’re drunk!’
‘I think I am – perhaps the second bottle wasn’t a good idea.’
‘I’m frightfully sorry.’
‘What for? It’s been a lovely evening, and I’m only a little giddy. It’s rather nice.’
‘I’m glad of that. I endeavour to present myself as a modern Hercules, but I don’t think I could carry you all the way to Shrewsbury.’
They reached the postern gate and Harriet located her key in the long sleeve of her gown.
‘Let us kiss and part. I suppose I had better not come in. I don’t think my trousers could cope with the wall.’
‘I wish you could.’
He took her hand and held it for a moment beneath his chin. ‘Harriet, may I give you something? I mean, you can’t very well wear a dog collar to remind yourself of me, and I should like you to have something I imagine you clutching to the tender bosom if I can’t be there myself.’
‘Of course you can give me something, Peter. I shall even promise to look after it.’
‘I don’t have a ring for you –’
‘What dreadful lack of forethought.’
‘Oh, I don’t claim never to have thought it. Only one can hardly carry something around for five years, and besides, I didn’t know the size.’ He tugged his signet ring from his finger. ‘Will you take mine, instead? You needn’t wear it, but I should like to think you had it.’
He set the ring on her finger and she closed her hand. ‘Thank you, Peter.’
He unlocked the gate. ‘We haven’t talked about things much. Would you mind awfully if I told my mother? And Bunter – it’s no good keeping secrets from Bunter. But we can keep it quiet for the rest if you’d rather.’
‘No. We’ve got to face things some time. I do want to marry you. I have done for ages really, only I didn’t quite have all the necessary data to take the final plunge. But I don’t want to wait any longer, and I’ll be damned if I’ll let anyone else make me.’
‘Darling.’ He kissed her and she shivered in his arms.
‘That was the cold, wasn’t it? I must go.’
‘Yes.’ She kissed his cheek. ‘Goodnight, Peter.’
He waited while she closed and locked the gate and turned resolutely on her heel. She vanished in a flutter of silk beneath the shadow of the beech trees.
The guest room in Old Quad, as he knew, afforded no view of the gate. Peter waited for a moment until certain Harriet would not return, and retreated into St Cross Road. The sky to the east was turning pale. He felt himself in that strange state that is half weariness, half elation, which seeks for anything but rest. He walked down Longwall Street and into the High, quiet for once of carts, bicycles, buses, cars, and all the bustle of town and gown. He let himself into the Mitre, and padded up the stairs, thoughtfully extracting the more jangling odds and ends from his pockets before slinging his clothes on a chair. His head was ringing; it seemed impossible that he should sleep. But there were still three hours before Bunter would appear: one might as well give it a try. He rolled himself into the cool sheets - soon Harriet would warm them - and sank into legitimate dreams.
Sorrow vanquished, labour ended, Jordan passed.